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Elizabeth Street
28 August, 2008  
Don't waste your life

Lizzy gives a talk to young law students. She gently hints that life in the law is not all it’s cracked up to be. What she really wanted to say was, “Don’t waste your life”

imageI remember on my first day at law school the lecturer asked each new student why we were studying law.

Responses varied: wanting to help people … to see justice done … to be rich.

As it has turned out, it isn’t much about justice or even being rich.

So when I had to give a little talk to some young uni law students the other day, I was on the horns of a dilemma.

Part of me felt bound to let these poor darlings know the reality of what lies ahead for a life in the law.

The other part of me felt so sorry for them that I wished for their sugar-coated fantasies of law to persist for as long as possible.

Confronting the sea of shiny, enthusiastic faces, I found myself sprouting things like: “Working as a lawyer is very hard but it can be very rewarding.”

Oh dear. I omitted that the hard part is the first 15 years and the rewarding part seems to me the bit where as a partner you’re paid to schmooze clients!

Here are a couple of myths I tried to shatter, gently.

Myth number one. Being a lawyer isn’t like Boston Legal.

My firm actually does have a partner that reminds me scarily of the sexually obsessed narcissist Denny Crane.

However, our cases tend to be significantly more boring and I’m sure if anyone tried Alan Shaw’s courtroom stunts they’d do a stint in the nick for contempt.

I saw their little faces crumple.

Myth number two: You can’t delegate everything to your secretary or the paralegals.

I gravely told then: “Your first few years will be the bottom of the greasy pole and you need to expect that the work you do won’t be very interesting and you won’t yet have the authority to delegate.”

I stopped short of saying, “You won’t have any authority. Period. Your degree will mean nothing except you can witness affidavits.”

I also tried to gently break the news: “you will not be rich.”

I said this as I discreetly kicked my white leather Gucci Indy bag under my seat.

The explanation for this is complicated. I could never afford such an accessory on my salary. It came as a “take me back, please!” gift from a man.

I took him back.

Perhaps I should have added, “So marry rich instead!”

The eager beavers who think law is a money tree are in for a shock. Recruiters, who have no university degree, and are younger than I am, are earning me under the table.

I had this overwhelming desire to scream: “Run, run as fast as you can. Don’t waste your life.”

Instead, I put on my court face and gently suggest that law isn’t for everyone and not to be disappointed if it doesn’t live up to your dreams.

If I’d known then about Lisa Pryor’s book, The Pin Striped Prison – How overachievers get trapped in corporate jobs they hate, I would have recommended it as compulsory reading.

Instead I grabbed my crumpled handbag and fled.




Reader Comments

Posted by: Anonymous
Date: August 30, 2008, 1:28 am

The title says it all.
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: August 31, 2008, 12:35 am

Lizzy, your synopsis of life in law is spot on, but you neglected to mention where bright, young budding lawyers should "run" to. The answer is a life in the law overseas, far away from Phillip Street and the bland world of corporate law in Australia. Law is still what it is, but when you're 1-2 years out of school and earning the same as a junior partner, and with limitless travel opportunities, well law can be rather Boston Legal and so much more.
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: August 31, 2008, 2:51 am

Pray tell, Anonymous, which part of 'overseas' you mean?
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: September 1, 2008, 8:32 pm

Some of us still engage of flights of fancy that we can make a difference...that enactments from the halcion days of Whitlam and Murphy see justice done and if we work really really hard, we may get some poor bastard off who deserves it... (even if we have to be put in the cells for contempt and move to Far North Queenlsand....)
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: September 1, 2008, 8:32 pm

It may well do to acknowledge that a life in the law can encompass more of the web of human/social relations that merely battling for profit in the pin-stripe prison, whether on Phillip St or "overseas". Perhaps, dare I suggest it, some of those eager young law students may one day make a worthwhile contribution to the development and governence of our society, or may pursue a career guided other than by personal gain and the pursiut of wealth and status. In short, perhaps they won't all take the emotional dead-end track of corporate warfare, and perhaps some of them may actually be genuine in their aspirational values.
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: September 1, 2008, 8:33 pm

anonoymous you are the type of person who thinks that because the work involves higher profile clients and more zero's that it somehow becomes different, its not, you still have no life outside of work (no real social life, no time for women etc), you're still treated like you're worthless and you're still getting paid much much less than the bosses. For those that want to stay in the law as a solicitor, go to a small firm, for those that dont go to governemnt or go to the private sector in corporate, better hours, better pay and most importantly NO TIME COSTING.
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: September 2, 2008, 3:48 am

All of this assumes that all lawyers become solicitors in large firms - it ignores other major areas - the Bar (which is like being paid to eat chocolate), legal academia and even small soliciors' practices. Why do people put law students off by telling them only about life doing discovery for megafirms of solicitors.
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: September 2, 2008, 3:49 am

I was one of those idealists - I am going to change the world and help people who really need me. Instead I am selling myself to whomever will pay the highest dollar then again to whichever client signed up to the higher charge out rate. I am nearly 5 years out and hating it every single day. I hate getting on that train so much every morning that I feel sick. Students, run! Run as fast as you can back to the admin building at uni and change courses. The industry is swamped with bullies who love to terrorise young lawyers seeing it as a right of passage.. this passage is not for me anymore.......
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: September 2, 2008, 11:42 pm

I'm sure the bar is great fun but due to the measly wages paid to junior solicitors I can't afford the $20K to pay for my bar exams, wigs and gowns, readers room fees and subscriptions. Plus, once I have it all going, I'm guaranteed to earn a big fat nothing for at least six months. I don't know anyone that can afford to pay their mortgage for six months in on income of zot!! I would love to get paid to eat chocolate but if I joined the bar I would spend the first few years not being able to afford chocolate! My point is, the bar is no easier than being a solicitor, you are on call 24/7, you don't get any paid holidays, you are expected to have all the answers and until you get established, you earn very little. Doesn't sound that appealing. Small firms are just as bad! Appalling pay, crazy hours, too much responsibility for a young lawyer. I agree with Lizzy, run, run as fast as you can.
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: September 4, 2008, 7:51 am

In times before Lisa Pryor's book, I found "Hell Has Harbour Views" to be a good introduction to the corporate legal world - who knew how scarily accurate it was? When I first read it, I thought it was a comedy. Now I regard it as a survival tool! For those of you working in a big firm like mine, I hear your pain, believe me, but don't dispair people! Seek out your own underground network of young idealists who have not yet had their sense of fun and idealism ground out of them! None of us young lawyers are here for the partnership in these big firms (who has a spare 20 years to waste hanging around?), so make the most of the perks and the expertise, hold on for as long as you can then get the hell out while your sanity is still intact. And then.... write a book about it. Then at least those shiny happy law students will see it coming - forearmed is forewarned!
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: September 4, 2008, 11:59 pm

"Pray tell, Anonymous, which part of 'overseas' you mean?" Dear Anonymous too, the jig would be up if I were to reveal a precise location on the Google Map. Suffice to say, Asia and the Middle East offer very junior lawyers, like moi, very healthy opportunities indeed. NYC and LON probably less so ...
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: September 6, 2008, 10:00 pm

Ok, decision time for me. I'm probly the type of student that this directed at, got the marks and i've got clerkships at the top 3 this summer. So it seems that the two ways to have a life that you enjoy and hold down a meaningful relationship outside while working in the law is to: a) do a couple years then go inhouse b) go to state solicitors Anyone know anything more indepth about these two options, or know any options other than overseas, I'll be the first to admit that i am naive P.S. respect to all those that tell us young ones the how it really is, i work at a top-tier and half of them look clinically depressed, but you always think that it will be different for yourself.
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: October 22, 2008, 12:16 am

Just finished Lisa Pryor's book - read it in three days. Lesson: follow your heart. If law is your passion to help others, then great. If you secretly cannot stand it, or any other job for that matter, then find what you truly love to do. Everyone is gifted in something. Life is too short to spend it on doing something you hate, 40 hours + per week. It may take a while with a few detours and bumps along the way, but you will eventually find what you are meant to do in life.